35 Years of IDEA: A Dream Deferred?

Published on December 2, 2010 by Jennifer Laviano

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A few days ago marked 35 years since the federal special education statute, now known as IDEA, was signed into law.  It is hard to believe that within my lifetime, and probably yours, it was legally permissible to exclude children with disabilities from our public schools entirely.

Think about that for a minute.

A little over a generation ago, students with disabilities had no legal entitlement to an education at all, let alone a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”), as we have come to know special education designed to meet a child's unique needs.

We have come a long way since then.  And yet, we still have so far to go.

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It is often noted that IDEA did not and does not define what the “appropriate” means in the entitlement to FAPE.  Legal precedent and additional statutory language haven't done much to make the definition any clearer, but what does appear to be well-understood is that the IDEA does not guarantee the “best” programs to children with special education needs.

Instead, children are entitled by law to IEPs which confer varying degrees of “educational benefit.”  The common example taken from these cases is that children with disabilities are entitled to a Chevy, not a Cadillac.

35 years later, I have to ask, does this seem acceptable to you?

Does anyone believe for one minute that school districts would get away with telling parents of children who do not have disabilities that they are striving for average?  How many “blue ribbon” school boards would have the audacity to publicly say to parents of the students who do not have IEPs:  “we only have to provide adequate”?

I have yet to read a Mission Statement on the walls of the many schools I enter on a daily basis which says “Here at Jane Q. Public Elementary We Aim to Create an Atmosphere of Mediocrity, Whereby All Students Are Entitled To Adequate.”

I'm just saying.

Here's to hoping that 35 years from now, the dream of IDEA will met.

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7 Responses to 35 Years of IDEA: A Dream Deferred?

  1. Rochelle
    December 2nd, 2010 | 10:45 pm

    Students are still excluded. Nothing in IDEA prevents more than the least schools need to do. Schools choose dependence and failure for some.

  2. Shannon Primer
    December 2nd, 2010 | 10:52 pm

    Love this quote, “Does anyone believe for one minute that school districts would get away with telling parents of children who do not have disabilities that they are striving for average? How many “blue ribbon” school boards would have the audacity to publicly say to parents of the students who do not have IEPs: “we only have to provide adequate”?”

    If your school is a blue ribbon school then my arguement would be that “appropriate” is blue ribbon special ed services, NOT ADEQUATE!!

  3. Nancy G
    December 2nd, 2010 | 11:04 pm

    They do not tell the parents of children who Do NOT have disabilities that they are striving for average but that is really what they are doing. As long as we are locked into a system that is run by powerful unions there will be NO change.

    Either Home School, Pay for Private School or Vote to Put into Law provisions for Vouchers & School Choice.

  4. Jennifer Laviano
    December 2nd, 2010 | 11:13 pm

    Nancy, interesting perspective, but I must say that at least here in CT, especially in Fairfield County, many school districts are providing stellar educations to children who are in “regular education,” and yet those same districts are telling parents of children with disabilities that they are “not entitled to the best.” Just seems like such a discriminatory approach to me! Thanks for reading.

  5. Michelle Bidwell
    December 3rd, 2010 | 3:49 pm

    Here in Northeast CT, I don’t know of any districts who provide anything close to a “stellar” education to reg ed students–but all districts I know of definitely do subscribe to the belief that SWD’s are only entitled to “adequate” (and, of course, the district staff decides what is “adequate”…..). And I totally agree that SWD’s are still excluded–they are often excluded WHILE they are sitting in the reg ed classroom! Just plopping them at a desk in the reg ed classroom cannot be called “inclusion” (yet on my kids IEP, that’s what it’s called!). 35 years later, sped still has a very long way to go.

  6. Jane
    December 3rd, 2010 | 4:54 pm

    Equal access applies to opportunity for excellence or opportunity for mediocrity. Can you imagine if nondisabled students were allowed access to only “some” educational benefit?

  7. Staci Daddona
    February 25th, 2011 | 11:38 pm

    I’m so glad to read this post (a little late). I’ve been mystified by the inflated, self-congratulatory dialogue I’ve heard celebrating the 35th year of IDEA. We have a law that entitles our children to an education. So what? The feds have never funded it adequately, and if they aren’t going to hold themselves accountable, then the states and school districts certainly aren’t going to either. Legislators threw in the word “appropriate” without providing guidance on how to interpret the word, so the courts assist the school districts in making sure “appropriate” is the least amount of benefit possible… which leads to throwing most of our children into general education classrooms without sufficient support. I’m sorry if I sound ungrateful to the parents and advocates who came before me, but why did they drop the torch?

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